News / Asia

VOA EXCLUSIVE: US, Pakistan View Drone Strikes From Different Perspectives

FILE - This composite image shows a U.S. Air Force drone that was piloted during missions over the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Pakistan's Islamist party Pasban (bottom photo) protesting against U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region, Karachi, Pakistan.
FILE - This composite image shows a U.S. Air Force drone that was piloted during missions over the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Pakistan's Islamist party Pasban (bottom photo) protesting against U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region, Karachi, Pakistan.
Luis RamirezMuhammad Ishtiaq
For hours on end, the U.S. military watches what it calls terror targets overseas through the lenses of drones - remotely piloted aircraft flying miles above places like Pakistan and Yemen.
 
“We see anything from them going to the grocery store to washing their laundry outside,” one drone operator recently told VOA during a visit to a pilot training facility at Holloman Air Force Base in the U.S. state of New Mexico. “We'll watch them wake up in the morning.
 
After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. touts the drone program as one that allows America to eliminate terrorists without putting American soldiers in harm's way.
 
On the ground in Pakistan, however, where drones have struck often in recent years, the view is starkly different.
 
Total Number of Drone Deaths in PakistanTotal Number of Drone Deaths in Pakistan
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Total Number of Drone Deaths in Pakistan
Total Number of Drone Deaths in Pakistan

Those living in Pakistan’s north say the drone attacks too often are indiscriminate and, they say,  kill civilians far more than terrorists.

“I have a message from all the tribesmen that their targets were wrong," said Habib Noor Orakazi, a tribesman from northern Pakistan. "Whatever their research was, that is absolutely mistaken.”

VOA Pentagon’s correspondent and VOA reporters in Pakistan took a comprehensive look at the impact of the U.S drone program on U.S. service personnel who operate the drones, and also on Pakistanis who suffer the consequences of the U.S. actions.

On both sides, they found stress and conviction of beliefs in the legitimacy - or not - of the strikes.
 
The U.S. Air Force rarely grants reporters access to drone bases, but it hosts an open house at least once a year to showcase its training efforts at the Holloman Base.

In portable buildings the size of large shipping containers, hundreds of young men and women train to become the next generation of U.S. pilots of what the Air Force calls Remotely Piloted Vehicles [RPVs]. The base is on the fringes of New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range, not far from where the United States Army tested its first atomic bomb in 1945.

This vast expanse of desert once again is the scene of experimentation of a form of warfare whose effects on pilots are only now beginning to be known, and include rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide that do not differ significantly from pilots of manned aircraft.
 
Countries where U.S. drone attacks have occurredCountries where U.S. drone attacks have occurred
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Countries where U.S. drone attacks have occurred
Countries where U.S. drone attacks have occurred

The jagged mountains visible in the distance of the base bear a resemblance to some of those in distant regions, creating an even more realistic effect for the pilots who spend long hours each day at the controls, sitting in large chairs at consoles with video screens and joysticks.
 
The aircraft they are flying are Predators and Reapers, the type that are at work around the globe carrying out reconnaissance and bombing missions.
 
They are flown by teams of two: a pilot and a sensor operator. The latter controls all the cameras and spots targets on the ground, monitoring them often for hours and even weeks before the pilot initiates the strike.

The RPA pilot executes kill orders, but the final decision on who to strike comes from a higher command - a  panel of a number of people, who can include anyone from the U.S. President to generals and intelligence officials.  Their decision is based in part on the data relayed to them by the RPA crew.
 
“After watching a compound for so many weeks, days, months, we'll actually be able to set our watch to when they're going to wake up in the morning,” said Jeremiah, a staff sergeant identified only by his first name for security reasons.

“It is the most difficult part of the job,” he said about firing on individuals whose daily habits and routines he comes to know somewhat intimately.

In some respects, it is harder for the drone pilot crews to engage in targeted killing than it is for someone who's in an aircraft thousands of feet above the ground, said one expert in pilots’ stress.
 
“It's an up close personal kind of killing that takes a huge psychological toll on our soldiers and airmen,” said Audrey Kurth-Cronin, a professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy.
 
Jean Otto, a Department of Defense epidemiologist who co-authored a recent report comparing mental health outcomes among U.S. Air Force RPA operators and conventional manned warplane pilots, said her findings counter a perception that because pilots are not deployed to combat, they may carry less of a mental health risk.
 
“We found that there was no statistically significant difference in the rate of mental health outcomes between the two groups,” Otto said.
 
Bradley Hoagland, a U.S. Air Force Colonel, conducted research on how the Air Force identifies and develops drone pilot candidates, as part of a fellowship at the Brookings Institution. He found they were washing out of initial flight screening at rates about three times higher.
 
Hoagland said there is much room for improvement when it comes to prescreening methods for a job where the challenges have yet to be fully understood.
 
“It's not pulling the G's in an aircraft, but what we're asking these young airmen to do to execute the mission for the RPA is intense,” he said. “You put a lot of responsibility on these young airmen's shoulders to make the right decisions.”
 
The drone program has been highly unpopular in countries like Pakistan, which frequently has denounced U.S. drone strikes on militants operating in the country's semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Regions.
 
Number of Drone Casualties in Pakistan by year, 2004 – 13Number of Drone Casualties in Pakistan by year, 2004 – 13
x
Number of Drone Casualties in Pakistan by year, 2004 – 13
Number of Drone Casualties in Pakistan by year, 2004 – 13
Pakistani officials allege the strikes have often killed innocent civilians and fueled the unsubstantiated perception that the strikes kill more innocent victims than militants.
 
The attacks have triggered large anti-American demonstrations in Pakistani cities in an effort to get Pakistan's government to ban U.S. drones from operating in Pakistani airspace.
 
Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, called for an end to U.S. drone strikes in a meeting with President Obama at the White House last October.
 
Pakistani officials say the drone attacks are counterproductive and point to their human rights and humanitarian implications.
 
“These drone strikes have a negative impact on the government's efforts to bring peace and stability in Pakistan and the region,” said Tasneem Aslam, a spokeswoman for Pakistan's foreign office.
 
Following pressure from foreign governments, as well as human rights activists in the United States, the Obama administration has scaled back drone strikes.  
 
While U.S. government does not provide casualty figures, the New America Foundation, a Washington-based public policy group, estimates the strikes have killed up to 3,400 people in Pakistan since operations began in 2004.

The group says up to 300 of those killed were civilians, not combatants.

But among the list of prominent militants killed by U.S. drones is Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a hit last November.

Others include Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and senior official of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, killed in 2011. The second in command of that organization, Said al-Shehri, was killed in a drone stroke in Yemen last July, as were two other senior AQAP leaders the following month, also in Yemen.
 
A recent U.N. Report said the attacks dropped significantly last year, down to 27 strikes from a peak of 128 in 2010.
 
“For the first time in nine years, there were no reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2013," said Ben Emmerson, the United Nations' special investigator on counterterrorism.  
 
Emmerson, however, said a different scenario exists in Afghanistan, where the U.N. reports civilian casualties from drone strikes rose to 45 dead and 14 injured - three times as many as in 2012.
 
Yemen has had an estimated 500 civilian casualties from drone strikes since 2009, according to the U.N. official.  
 
With the U.S. Air Force training RPA operators at an unprecedented rate, it appears drones will remain a weapon of choice for the U.S. military.

Matt, an Air Force pilot at Holloman, who flies both manned aircraft and RPA's, has no doubt that drones are here to stay. He said he finds his work fulfilling because it saves American troops on the ground from Improvised Explosive Devices [IEDs] and other dangers.
 
“It prevents folks from being hit by IEDs and we go and find the big bad guys and that is good business to be in,” he said. “It's very rewarding. I believe that RPAs are the future.”

A tribesman in northern Pakistan, Orakazi, has a different take. “God has given them so much, he said. “They have sophisticated technology, it would be great if it is used properly.”

Luis Ramirez reported for VOA News from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and Muhammad Ishtiaq reported for VOA's Urdu Service from  Pakistan.

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Comments
     
by: Not Again from: Canada
April 03, 2014 11:42 PM
Interesting statistics that the New America Foundation produces; but they are useless in operational terms. If manned aircraft were used, the casualty rates and bombing errors would probably be far greater, than those of the remotly piloted vehicles. Simple physics will demonstrate that an aircraft flying at 700 miles per hour, versus an aircraft flying at 120 miles per hour has a much smaller time frame window for the pilot to accurately determine the situation and launch the weapon. The drone pilot can loitter for hrs and clearly observe the target and its environment; the manned aircraft does not even have the fuel to loitter for hrs over a target, nor can it slow down significantly. I am not sure what this new foundation is trying to demonstrate with the stats wrt the remotly piloted vehicles (RPV). The RPV, using the same weapon type as a manned aircraft, has a far better opportunity to clearly determine the environment, and thus reduce errors. Maybe the members of the foundation could go and try to do a better job of dealing with the terrorists, and putting them out of business themselves; who knows, maybe their children could do a more accurate job in an ultralight; are any of them volunteering? Or maybe they can convince the terrorists to find alternative employment....

by: meanbill from: USA
April 03, 2014 7:50 PM
CRAZY isn't it? ..... The US see's the use of killer drone bombs as killing the suspected enemies of America .. (BUT?) .. they only kill Pakistani people, who may, or may not be terrorists....
CRAZY isn't it? ..... America see's this US killer drone bombing as a legal right in their "war on terror" .. (BUT?) .. I'd bet my bottom dollar the US wouldn't believe the Pakistanis have a legal right to kill their enemies in America, with killer drone bombs, would they?
CRAZY isn't it? .... How the US see's what's fair and just, isn't it? .......... REALLY
In Response

by: ali baba from: new york
April 04, 2014 2:20 PM
I am Ali baba and your comment make me laugh. Did you forget that Osama bin laden was living in Pakistan under the protection of Pakistan Gov. Did you forget the Pakistan man want blow a site in New York city. Did you forget the Pakistani woman who studied ay MIT and want to kill American . Have ever visited Madrassa where imam teach the children to kill and in the same time enjoy of having sex with good looking Pakistani boys.
In Response

by: Atif from: Pakistan
April 04, 2014 4:34 AM
There is no safe-haven for terrorists in Pakistan, as soon as the threat is detected we eliminate it by using strategic tactics. First of all, the terrorists are not targeting Americans, their targeting the innocent in Pakistan, secondly, USA has no right to use drones as it is against International Law and Human Rights Act. The idiot "Ali baba" is either an Indian or an unknown illiterate individual (ranting his idiocy). Furthermore, the USA knows Pakistan's contributions and sacrifices made to fight against terror, but should also acknowledge that using drones damages another nations sovereignty and questions the democrats ability to manage an entire country.
In Response

by: ali baba from: new york
April 03, 2014 9:50 PM
the united state has the right to use any means necessary to protects its citizen for terrorist activities. Pakistan has received billions of money and they are playing double standard. If these tribe people has not granted safe heaven for terrorist ,t he action of united state to use drone is not necessary. The fact the tribe has granted safe heaven to terrorist. The tribe people are full aware of damage that might happen but they supported them. Therefore , using drone is justified on the ground of self defense .

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